On 26-27 June 2014, the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) held its plenary meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The discussion on India’s membership was reportedly on the agenda. Meanwhile, on 23 June, India announced its decision to ratify the Protocol Additional to the Agreement between the Government of India and the IAEA for the application of safeguards to Civilian Nuclear Facilities (AP). India has been progressively, and on schedule, been implementing the Separation Plan accepted in 2006 as part of the process of India’s exceptionalisation and conclusion of the India–United States Civil Nuclear Agreement. Ratification of the AP was one of the last few major commitments, even though the document itself had been expeditiously concluded in July 2009. The conclusion of this formality too now marks the end of India’s fulfillment of its promises in exchange for its entry into international nuclear commerce.
The idea and logic of India’s exceptionalisation, however, has still not been accepted by many non-proliferation hardliners in the US and other Western capitals, irrespective of the myriad steps that have been taken by India. Not surprisingly, therefore, mischievous reports on India’s nuclear activities surface at opportune times. Expectedly, just before the NSG meeting that was to consider India’s membership, IHS Jane’s sprung an article alleging that India was “expanding a covert uranium enrichment plant that could potentially support the development of thermonuclear weapons.”
The timing and content of the report was mischievous on two fronts: first, from the point of view of the impending consideration of India’s NSG membership; and second, from the point of view of drawing attention away from the import of the ratification of the AP by India.
India's uranium enrichment plant at Rattenhalli, Mysore, is not covert. It has been well known for decades and is meant to meet the low enriched uranium fuel requirements of nuclear powered submarines. India’s nuclear doctrine, based as it is on the threat of assured retaliation, requires a sea-based deterrent capability to support a credible no first use. This, in fact, is a requirement much greater than the need for a large arsenal of thermonuclear weapons. It is the assuredness of retaliation to cause unacceptable damage that is necessary to deter, and even non-thermonuclear weapons can wreak such damage given the density of population in this part of the world. Therefore, India's enriched uranium requirements are of greater criticality for assuring survivability through a credible SSBN fleet, than for building an arsenal of thermonuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the Indian ratification of the AP is not an insignificant development. Since 1997, when the AP was first concluded as a tool for strengthening the IAEA safeguards system in the wake of the suspected weapons programmes in states of proliferation concern, the AP has been ratified by 123 countries. It is considered a necessary confidence building measure in providing assurance on the exclusively peaceful nature of a national nuclear programme. The US has been amongst the forerunners seeking its universalisation as a pre-condition for civilian nuclear cooperation.
There are three types of APs – the Model AP with Non-nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) that accept comprehensive safeguards; Voluntary Offer Agreements with Nuclear Weapon States (NWS); and a version of the Model AP with other States prepared to accept measures provided for in the Model AP. India is the only ‘other State’ that has offered to accept an AP tailored to its specificities but that would pursue safeguards effectiveness and efficiency.
In the case of India, not only does the AP grant special rights to the IAEA to conduct inspections (such as the right to declare any Agency official as an inspector, grant of multiple entry visas to facilitate short-notice/surprise inspections, and unrestricted unattended monitoring on civilian designated sites), but also reinforces India’s commitment to ensure that its export controls conform to the best international standards. Of course, there are some provisions of the Model AP that are applicable to the NNWS that do not form a part of the Indian AP. But this is hardly surprising given India’s particular circumstances. Critics forget India’s exceptional circumstances which necessitated the exceptionalisation in the first place. This in no way undermines India’s intention of placing its declared facilities under IAEA oversight. Of course, there will be others that remain outside the IAEA purview, just as there are in other states with nuclear weapons. The APs of all NWS have conditioned access on the basis of national security exclusions.
However, fears that India will use/expand these to indulge in an arms race or for accumulating a large arsenal belie a complete lack of understanding of India’s concept of nuclear deterrence. Credible minimum deterrence and no first use are the basic attributes of the Indian nuclear doctrine. These are alien to most Western analysts who cannot understand that India has no need to indulge in a foolhardy exercise of warhead accumulation seeking parity or superiority.
As a believer in the security benefits of non-proliferation, even as a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) non-member, India has displayed more conformity with the letter and spirit of the NPT than many of its subscribers. Its participation in the IAEA safeguards regime by extending enhanced safeguards on an expanding nuclear programme, and committing India to export controls as also international safety and security standards only adds to this.